"Pretty Little Liars" star Troian Bellisario has previously been as honest as she could be about one of the less pretty aspects of her own life story: her battle, and subsequent recovery, with anorexia during her teen years. And now she's turned her very real personal life-and-death struggle into the basis for a harrowing on-screen narrative -- with a PLL-esque twist.
As the screenwriter and star of the new film "Feed," Bellisario fused aspects of her own experiences with an eating disorder into a thriller with a psychological -- and potentially supernatural -- spin: privileged teenager Olivia descends into a tailspin when she survives a car crash that proves fatal for her twin brother Matthew (Tom Felton), who nevertheless remains a near-constant presence in her life -- or at least her head -- as a constant, nagging reminder of all her imperfections.
It's a new creative chapter for the actress, who's also directed an episode of her recently concluded hit series (and a logical one: her writer/producer father Magnum, P.I.," "NCIS"; her mother Deborah Pratt is a prolific actress, writer, and producer as well). And, as she shares with Moviefone, the journey came with as many painful moments as pleasurable ones.
Moviefone: This is quite an accomplishment. I know this project is something that's been buzzing at the back of your brain for a while now. Tell me what got you over the hump and got this movie made.
Troian Bellisario: Money! No, I'm kidding. In a very real way. I wrote this film right before I got "Pretty Little Liars," and I think the biggest, most difficult thing for me in giving this to people was that I didn't want to approach my experience with my mental illness from sort of straight on. I didn't want to write an autobiography. I didn't want to just kind of show a story about somebody who's going through this. I wanted to speak about it in a different way.
It was difficult for people to grasp. I don't think that there was as much of an open conversation in the media. So I don't think a lot of people really understood it. So for a while, it was difficult. As I put the script out there, I had a lot of people who were like, "Okay, we're going to make it, but it's got to be a ghost story only," or "It's got to be horror." Or, "If you're going to make it, we want it to be solely an issue film, and we want it to not be about the grief and loss of losing somebody so close to you, we want it to only be an eating disorder."
I held fast. I was like, "I'm going to find the people who want to make this with me, who believe that it can be all of these things, because mental illness is very complicated, and multilayered, and it's not just one thing." So it took me eight years of talking to people, and pushing myself into rooms, and asking people to have faith in me, and finally, enough people did that we got to make it.
Was it challenging figuring out how to marry psychological thriller elements to the real-world issue that you were tackling?
Definitely. It also gave me room to not only speak about my experience with an eating disorder. It gave me room to speak about the loss of my first love, and it gave me room to speak about growing up -- two of my best friends in the world are brother-and-sister twins. I got to talk about the jealousies and the desperation that I wanted to be in that relationship, and, as much as they loved me, I could never be in that relationship. So I watched it a lot from the outside.
So it was creative and wonderful to get the permission to not have to speak only truthfully about it, to get to sort of work in a metaphor, or work in a slightly fragmented prism about my experience. It was really important for me, because I think, particularly as somebody who already has a career, I already have fans through my show, and they have an idea about me, and I feel that if I were to just come forward and regurgitate the facts of my life, I don't think that's as interesting. I think that that can also be like exploitative. It can be sensationalized.
What I really didn't want, and I've had to deal with it a lot, is I didn't want somebody to ask me like, "So what was the lowest you got to?" I didn't want these questions thrown in my face. I wanted it to be about something else.
Was it a painful process to dig into all of it? You've certainly been very open about it publicly, but to open it up for your art -- was that painful or was it healing?
It was both. It was definitely both. One of my main intentions in writing and acting "Feed" was to try to close that chapter of my life. It was naive to think that way, because a mental illness is something that never really goes away. It's always something that you're struggling with. So the thought that I could write this thing and get it out of me, and then I would never have to deal with it [wasn't realistic] -- in fact, it was really more a testament to my rehabilitation and to my constant process of recovery to say, "Can I go back into this world? Can I go back into these behaviors and these compulsions? Can I also find my way back to health afterwards?"
Because the one thing that would be tragic, for me personally, would be to get involved with this, and just welcome it all back in my life after I worked so hard, and after so many of my friends and family supported me through it. Also, I wouldn't be a good role model to other people struggling with this to just intentionally welcome this back into my life, and then let it take control.
So it was really difficult. We shot it, I don't even know how long ago. I guess it would almost be like, maybe a year and a half ago -- and for me, I'm still finding ways that it's rippling through my life. I think that's good, because I think that talking about it and being open about it and sharing my vulnerabilities is the only way that I'm also going to encourage other people to do the same.
Were you completely surprised that twins also played into the endgame of "Pretty Little Liars"? You knew for a bit.
[Laughs] I did know for a bit. And to me, it felt so different. In "Pretty Little Liars," it was the classic sort of like, the trope of the evil twin -- the twin who got everything, and the twin who got nothing -- coming back. It was really that. With me and "Feed," it felt like a lot more of an exploration of a sort of mirroring of your own psychosis, and using a twin in order to enact that.
It was funny -- I didn't really put two and two together, but yeah, since then, if there's anything that comes across my desk that like is a twin, I'm like, "Oh my God, this is too much!"
How are things now that you're done? You just put the show down. Are you feeling energized for the next chapter, or taking a breath?
Yeah, I feel like I've been able to breathe, and I feel really grateful for that time. It's given me time to focus on launching "Feed," which is great, and I am excited. I'm excited for the next steps of my career.